On 10 July 1943 the 1st Canadian Division and Army Tank Brigade came ashore as part of a massive joint American / British invasion of German occupied Sicily.
The Canadians captured the Pachino airport on the first day and then headed inland where, for the next three weeks, Canadian soldiers fought their way up steep hills, across deep ravines and through small rock strewn villages where they faced ambushes by machine guns and 88mm anti-tank guns which inflicted many casualties and slowed the advance to a crawl.
After a daring and bitterly contested assault, the Canadians captured the mountainous Leonforte-Assoro position, and then fought their way eastward until they finally met up with British forces at Messina. After 38 days the island of Sicily was finally secure, but it had been a costly campaign, with the Canadians suffering over 2,310 casualties, including 560 killed.
The First Canadian Division and the 1st Canadian Army Tank Brigade commanded by Canada's youngest General, 40 year old Major General Guy Simonds, were part of the joint American / British invasion of Sicily, codenamed Operation Husky, on 10 July 1943. General George Patton's 7th U.S. Army went ashore at Licata, Gela and Ragusa. Simultaneously, General Sir Bernard Montgomery's British 8th Army went ashore at a total of five locations on Sicily's southern tip, south of Syracuse.
The Canadians, part of the British 8th Army, waded ashore at two locations between Ispica and Pachino. As Lieutenant Farley Mowat of the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment (the Hasty Ps) would later write about the landing; "Revolver in hand, Tommy gun slung over my shoulder, web equipment bulging with grenades and ammunition, tin hat pulled firmly down over my ears, I sprinted to the edge of the landing craft ramp shouting follow me men! and leapt off into eight feet of water." Lt. Mowat and his men would emerge drenched on the beach and continue forward.
The Canadians first objective was the Pachino airport where Italian resistance was weak. After only a few hours, the airport was secured. The British 8th Army moved north along the Sicilian coast; their objective, to cut off a German retreat across the straight of Messina, while the U.S. 7th Army marched west to Trapani and Palermo.
The Canadian's responsibility was to proceed inland where they first came under German tank and artillery fire from the Hermann Goering Division at Grammichele. The town was taken quickly on 15 July by the men and tanks of the 1st Infantry Brigade and Three Rivers Regiment, but at a cost of 25 casualties.
After Grammichele, German soldiers were encountered all along the rocky roads where small groups of enemy soldiers of the Panzer Grenadier Division would fight to delay the Canadian advance, inflict casualties and then melt away to their next position.
These German tactics of "hold, fight and retreat" delayed the Canadian advance at Piazza Armerina for 24 hours until the town was taken at a cost of 27 casualties. On the 17 July, the tactics were repeated at Valguarnera where, after 145 casualties, the Canadians finally secured the town.
For the next three weeks, the Canadians fought their way up steep hills, across deep ravines and through small rock strewn villages where platoon strength German soldiers would use ambushes and minefields dominated by machine guns and 88 mm anti-tank guns to inflict casualties and slow the advance to a crawl.
The battle for Sicily would only get worse. The Canadian Division now faced the formidable, almost impregnable mountain fortress of Leonforte-Assoro, defended by the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division.
The Leonforte-Assoro position was dominated by the 3,000 foot Assoro Mountain rising abruptly from the Dittaino River bed. On the mountain slope, the village of Assoro sat precariously. Several miles to the west, the town of Leonforte sat on an adjoining ridge overlooking the river. The entire series of peaks and ridges blocked the Canadian Division's gateway to the east to close with the British 8th Army at Messina.
Any frontal assault, even one well supported by artillery, would be suicidal and a flanking attack would not succeed. The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment were assigned the only alternative attack route; to scale the 1,000 foot cliff face on the eastern side of Mount Assoro. Led by thirty year old Major John Buchan, Lord Tweedsmuir (the son of the late Governor General), the daring and dangerous plan was executed in the dead of night.
The cliff face was scaled without the loss of one man and the enemy had been completely surprised. At daybreak the exhausted "Hasty Ps" stood on the crest of the heights that commanded a full view of the German soldiers just below. They dug in and the battle for Assoro began. And what a battle it was.
The Germans, although totally surprised, fought hard to maintain their mountain stronghold. The Canadians, their backs to the edge of the cliff they had just climbed, fought on until their rations, water and ammunition were almost exhausted. "Private Greatrix became an instant hero when he opened a can of sardines and offered each of his platoon mates one tiny fish!"
Finally, in desperation, the Regimental Sergeant Major climbed back down the cliff to obtain assistance. One hundred men of the Royal Canadian Regiment volunteered to carry supplies back up the cliff face to ensure that the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment warriors still fighting on Assoro could hold out. After some 36 hours, the Germans were forced to withdraw from both Assoro and the town of Leonforte.
Assoro was a magnificent Canadian success demonstrating both initiative and endurance. However the battle aroused the Germans and the Canadians were flung back bloodied and almost beaten at their next objective, the town of Nissoria, only a few miles down the road.
Finally, after a full re-evaluation of the situation and several detailed reconnaissance efforts, a full scale attack on Nissoria, supported by effective artillery, was successful. The Canadian Division moved on to bitter fighting at Agira, then Regalbuto and the final battle at the River Simeto, where the Germans retreated to Messina.
In one month, the Canadians had fought for 120 miles through mountainous country in extreme heat, fighting a stubborn German army. The Canadian Division met with the Americans and British at Messina, only to find that the Germans had made a successful withdrawal to the Italian mainland.
During the 38 day Sicilian Campaign, the Canadians suffered 2,310 casualties including 562 killed, 1,664 wounded and 84 taken prisoner. Lt. Gen. Sir Oliver Leese, the 30 Corps Commander, congratulated General Simonds and the 1st Canadian Division for "magnificent fighting", while the commander of the 8th Army, General Montgomery, said of the Canadians; "I regard you now as one of the veteran divisions of the 8th, just as good if not better."
The Sicilian campaign was over, but the real battle was yet to come on the Italian mainland.